Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Technology Trends: Bridging the Digital Divide in Native American Communities
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 19 No. 4 P. 6

Internet access has become so ubiquitous that consideration is not always given to those who fall into the “digital divide.” The digital divide is a social issue referring to the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. Because internet providers are not financially motivated to invest in the infrastructure required to provide access in remote, rural regions, internet connectivity in these areas is often slow, unreliable, poor quality, or even nonexistent. This has led to some dramatically underserved populations who are missing out on a wide range of educational, cultural, and economic opportunities and has inspired a number of researchers to find ways to bridge the gap.

Among them is Morgan Vigil-Hayes, PhD, an assistant professor of computer science for Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems. Vigil-Hayes is working on two projects specifically targeting Native communities within the digital divide. Using her expertise in network analysis techniques, Vigil-Hayes is hoping to inspire change. She says that fewer than 15% of residents in tribal areas in the United States and Canada have access to fixed or mobile broadband.

Expanding Connectivity and Content
One of the two key projects that Vigil-Hayes hopes will change this divide is PuebloConnect: Expanding Internet Access and Content Relevance in Tribal Communities, a project for which Vigil-Hayes is coprincipal investigator. The project, led by Elizabeth Belding, PhD, at the University of California Santa Barbara, received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and is exploring innovative technologies to inspire internet connectivity as well as the creation of content about indigenous culture.

“When we think about expanding internet connectivity to rural places, we usually think about getting people access to content, but we don’t think as much about the content that is out there,” Vigil-Hayes says. “Having internet connectivity is only really meaningful if people are able to use it for self-representation. We’re looking beyond just connecting them to the data, but also how we can empower people as content creators so that they are connecting with information that is meaningful to them.”

Vigil-Hayes says that many people who do not have consistent internet access believe that it is not relevant to their lives or their communities—particularly if their cultures are not well reflected in mainstream content. By facilitating content creation that reflects their cultures, Vigil-Hayes says the team hopes to help users feel represented and have “control over their digital identity as a culture.”

As part of the PuebloConnect project, Vigil-Hayes is working with Pueblo communities in northern New Mexico to develop new platforms extending internet connectivity and resources.

“In addition to looking at the technological issues causing internet access barriers, we are also thinking about how we can give people sovereignty over data,” Vigil-Hayes says. “One of the big concerns from elders is that bringing in all of this content without the appropriate scaffolding of cultural understanding will overwhelm people—so we’re addressing that, too. The question is, how do you empower a community to uphold its values within the space of digital content creation?”

To do this, the team will create a technology platform for people to upload and share content seamlessly, even though the connectivity in the area may be limited.

Although this project addresses specific needs in targeted areas, the technologies developed as a result will serve as pilot programs for future solutions.

“Because Native American reservations share many geographical and population density characteristics with other rural regions, many aspects of our work will be applicable to extending the reach and usability of the internet to other, non-Native communities within the U.S.,” Vigil-Hayes explains.

Mobile Health Intervention
A second project involving Vigil-Hayes also targets Native communities struggling within the digital divide. With a $60,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health through the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative, Vigil-Hayes is also working on Augmented Reality Over Remote Access (ARORA).

Native American communities experience significant behavioral health inequities and have limited access to behavioral health care resources. Because of this, suicide occurs 2.5 times more frequently than in other communities for people aged 15 to 24. In addition, generations of historical trauma have resulted in higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, substance use disorders, and depression. Vigil-Hayes says that ARORA is a mobile health intervention that will incorporate mobile gaming, augmented reality, edge computing, and social and emotional learning activities into a behavioral health intervention for Native American youth and adolescents.

In addition to Vigil-Hayes, the principal investigator, the project also involves Giovanni Castillo, MIA, director of Northern Arizona University’s Virtual Reality Learning Studio, and Ann Collier, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University. Collier says that her role will be creating the psychological curriculum and making sure that the psychological goals of the program are met.

“I am also in charge of the program evaluation, which involves working with the focus group to ensure that they provide feedback about the program as we move forward, as well as the testing and evaluation of the pilot programs,” Collier explains.

Connecting to Valuable Services
Collier says that ARORA is important because there are so few behavioral health services available on reservations—let alone age-appropriate services. There are usually no programs available to build positive psychological skills or resiliency skills in youth, either. However, ARORA will help teach Native American youth that technology can be a resource that can connect them positively to friends as well as teach skills used for mindfulness and emotional resiliency.

“We hope that our program decreases mental health issues such as stress, depression, and anxiety and increases well-being indicators—such as mindfulness,” Collier says. “We also hope it provides a resource for coping, especially with trauma, and teaches the youth prosocial behavior. We hope that this impact extends to their immediate and then larger communities.”

As a pilot program, Vigil-Hayes says that the project has significantly less funding, but the hope is that its success will support additional funding and growth.

“When you think about connectivity issues, there’s a big impact on mobile health in that you can’t provide these valuable resources to people if they can’t be connected,” Vigil-Hayes says. “So, the idea is that this app will be able to provide much-needed resources—we just need to make sure we’re doing it in a way that is culturally sensitive. Much like the PuebloConnect project, cultural appropriateness is a huge factor of what we’re doing here. How can we be culturally aware in the design and the interventions that we introduce, ensuring that youth are engaged in the social and emotional learning outcomes? How do you bring a culturally appropriate element to the teaching and practice of mindfulness so that it is relevant to these communities? These are big questions we are trying to answer.”

To address this, the team will form a community advisory board of Native American behavioral health care professionals and advocates who work with Native American youth to ensure that the designs of the intervention and application are culturally relevant and appropriate. To make the intervention widely accessible to Native communities, the team also will design a novel network architecture that localizes telehealth services to the communities that use them.

“We recently met with a Hopi artist who is allowing us to use his images within the app,” Vigil-Hayes says. “We’ll be utilizing his beautiful butterfly paintings in augmented reality so that they are actually flying around on the screen. We’re getting into a lot of uncharted territory here. We are challenged to create something that kids want to engage with but that will also teach them something valuable from a psychological standpoint. The big key is to look at the content and combine it with culturally relevant art and creativity that engages the user. It’s not enough to create the content—the users need to find it relevant.”

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA–based freelance writer.